Though for the first time in 20 seasons there is a new man at the helm, the UC Irvine men's soccer team is, to a large degree, picking up where it left off last season.
Chris Volk, a 17-year assistant coach under George Kuntz, who left for Cal State Fullerton in December after guiding the Anteaters to four NCAA tournament appearances in the previous six years, will lead the Anteaters into Monday's exhibition opener against Cal at home at 7 p.m.
Had UCI gotten past Maryland in last year's NCAA Sweet 16, UCI would have met Cal in the quarterfinal. But the Terrapins' 1-0 win propelled them to the College Cup final and halted UCI's season, in which the 'Eaters won the Big West Conference Southern Division title, captured the conference tournament crown, and finished 15-5-3. The season-ending setback also halted an eight-game winning streak, a nine-game unbeaten string, and a scoreless streak of 380 minutes that helped the 'Eaters amass 10 shutouts on the season.
Another NCAA appearance is possible this season, as an infusion of transfers and the return of three veterans who missed last season with knee injuries, figures to lessen the blow of losing former standout seniors Marco Franco, Enrique Cardenas, Christopher Santana and Tarek Morad.
"I'm excited," said Volk, a former national assistant coach of the year whose work under Kuntz helped UCI become a consistent top-25 program. "We have a lot of starters back and some talented transfers, along with a good class [of recruits] coming in. One of my goals is always to be playing in December. That could be the Sweet 16 or the quarterfinals or the Final Four. Playing past Thanksgiving [which UCI has managed just twice, including last season] is always where we want to be. In six years, we have won eight championships [four conference regular-season and four conference tournament crowns] so the expectation is that this is an NCAA postseason program. Everyone associated with the program has those expectations."
To achieve at that level, UCI will need to solidify a back line anchored by Franco, the Big West Defender of the Year, and Morad, whose leadership as captain was as valuable as his play on the field. Franco was chosen 13th overall in the MLS Super Draft by the Chicago Fire.
"We have a couple holes to fill in the back line," Volk, who remains the goalkeepers coach, said. "Shoring those up will be a focus for us early, so we can go forward. Defense is very important to me."
Cardenas, the Big West Midfielder of the Year last season, had eight goals and seven assists and combined with Santana, a second-team all-conference forward with six goals and two assists, to produce nearly half of the 2013 squad's 33 goals.
But senior co-captain Cameron Iwasa (seven goals and four assists in 2013), senior forward Trey Hayes (four goals and two assists), and senior midfielder Mitch Alvarez (three goals and three assists), are known quantities offensively.
In addition, midfielder Gor Kirakosyan, a sixth-year senior who had four goals and four assists in 2012 before sitting out last season with a torn ACL, and Cal State Bakersfield transfers Lalo Calzada and Mario Ortiz, should help create sufficient depth to foster productivity, Volk said.
"I think a lot of our creativity will come in the midfield," Volk said. "And I want to give our players the freedom to create in the final third. Our goals will come and, hopefully, they will come from a lot of different players."
Calzada, a junior midfielder, led Bakersfield with six goals and 14 points last season, while Ortiz, a sophomore midfielder, contributed five assists in 2013 as a freshman with the Roadrunners.
Volk said Iwasa's strength and speed make him a handful for opposing defenders and that his leadership will also be critical. Iwasa has 16 goals and eight assists in his three previous seasons at UCI.
Volk also believes the 6-foot-5 Hayes, who has nine goals and 11 assists in his UCI career, is ready for a breakout campaign.
Alvarez, one of eight starters returning, is also expected to add to a collection of scoring threats, which Volk said should also be bolstered by senior midfielder Dennis Martinez, sophomore forward Tenato Torquato (who missed last season with a torn ACL) and junior midfielder Gerardo "Puma" Gonzalez (a transfer from Taft Community College).
Sophomore forwards Edgardo Molina (13 goals as a freshman at Foothill Community College last season after earning CIF Central Coast Section Player of the Year honors as a senior at Menlo-Atherton High) and Pavle Atanackovic (four goals and two assists in 15 games as a freshman in 2012 before redshirting last season), could also contribute.
Sophomore Michael Sperber, a Big West All-Freshmen Team honoree last season, is a defensive midfielder who along with junior co-captain and returning starting holding midfielder Mats Bjurman should support a back line that includes returning starters Thomas Janjigian and Bryan Breslin.
"When [Sperber] is on his game, I don't think there is a better defensive midfielder in the conference," Volk said. "And Bjurman gives 110% effort in every practice and every game. He's like a wet towel coming off the field, because he really works hard."
Janjigian, a sophomore left back, and Breslin, a senior who played outside last season but could shift to a center back spot this fall, should gain support from sophomore Matt Tilley (sidelined by a torn ACL last season after starting 13 games as a freshman in 2012), junior Noah Gaines and sophomore Jack Birkenbeuel, Volk said.
Anchoring the defense will be junior goalkeeper Michael Breslin, who posted an 0.80 goals-against average and 10 shutouts while playing every minute last season.
UCI opens the regular season Aug. 31 at home against Pacific. The 'Eaters begin conference play Oct. 2 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and open Southern Division play at home against Kuntz and Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 18.
"That's going to be a great atmosphere," Volk said of his first meeting with his longtime colleague. "I know our guys will be up for the opportunity to seize three points [in the conference standings]."